In the aftermath of first Brexit and now Trump, 'co-production' is not at the top of the To Do list for some of the most influential world leaders.
So why do we know that it is still the right thing to do? Why is there still a growing movement of people dedicated to the collaboration cause?
Big P politics aside, I want to start by focusing on the small p politics.
In 1958, on the 10th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Eleanor Roosevelt, an esteemed US First Lady amongst many other roles, delivered the 'In Our Hands' speech:
“Where, after all, do universal human rights begin?
In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world.
Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighbourhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm or office where he works.
Such are the places where every man, woman and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere.
Without concerned citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”
For me, human rights are the foundations of co-production, which I believe, represent the conscience of our current democratic system. A reminder that we are all human and we all have rights – but creativity and perseverance are often required to uphold those rights within our somewhat restrictive systems.
'In Our Hands' was shared with me at a Dementia Lab that I ran last year in Northern Ireland. Over the five days, people living with dementia were deliberately the highest represented attendees.
Co-production is not consultation. Co-production is not tokenistic involvement.
Co-production is equitable participation where people, in a paid and voluntary capacity, work together to solve problems. I have taken co-production to mean taking notice of what actually matters to people - the 'small places' where people may be struggling - and working with those people to make those 'small places' bearable and indeed enjoyable.
One of the most inspirational people in the dementia world is Tommy Whitelaw who hit the road to share personal experiences after caring for his mother with dementia. Tommy’s campaign, which puts the 'care back into dementia care', underlines that when professionals and citizens genuinely work together, a movement can follow.
Another example of this is The Dementia Diaries, a project we developed in collaboration with the grandchildren of people living with dementia. We involved these young Carers BEFORE the project had started and they subsequently became our editorial board for the full project lifecycle. They designed the brief for a learning resource 'where the facts are true and the feelings are real'. Professionals and citizens are now using the Dementia Diaries globally.
Critically, when people ask who the target audience is, the answer is everyone. We found many professionals in the dementia field had retrained after personal experiences of caring for a loved one.
The great thing about co-production is that it is, for the most part, values based – the same principles can apply to any project where people work together.
Recently I have been involved in Reframing Migration, a collaboration between the University of the Arts London, Design for Social Innovation and Sustainability Network, and Social Innovation Lab in Kent. It offered a fresh look at migration - a way to understand migration as social innovation and explore how migrant and resident communities can live well together while creating value for the whole of society. As poet Hollie McNish says so succinctly in the now viral Mathematics: 'most times immigrants bring more than minuses'.
Reframing Migration demonstrates another benefit of co-production - creating 'safe' spaces to challenge institutionalised thinking and culture. A co-production approach can connect people with shared experiences - both professionals and citizens – who may often feel marginalised and alone. ‘Rites’, currently playing at the National Theatre Scotland, a co-production about Female Genital Mutilation, uses the 'safe space' of theatre to explore and understand this taboo subject. Creative approaches can provide co-production tools with which to understand and address issues in both a participatory and accessible way.
So to conclude, how do we, the 'concerned citizens' go forward?
- Continue to perfect the art of relationship and communication so that everyone can be involved - if they want to. Make it relevant and useful, in a language that is accessible, remembering that communication is multi-sensory
- Continue to understand context and need before jumping into solutions. Work alongside diverse communities, learning together and cross-checking, to unpick the complex world we now live in. Manage people’s expectations and acknowledge their incentives and disincentives to involvement
- Continue to find common ground, respecting people as individuals, but also as part of a network that is as unique to them as their own DNA. What insight or skills do people bring to the table? Bring people together across cultural boundaries, with music or food, before tackling some of the tougher challenges
Above all, remember co-production is about what matters to people. Continue to celebrate the difference that co-production can make in the 'small places, close to home - so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world'.